SOURCE: Architectural Digest
No other colour causes as much confusion for people as white. It seems like it should be the easiest but once you grab a few paint chips you start to realize just how complicated it can be. The simple explanation is in the variety of undertones and how they affect white paint. If you’ve used white and it just didn’t look great, it’s almost certain that the undertone of the white you selected wasn’t working with the surroundings in your room. I want to share all my tips for understanding how to pick the perfect white and it all begins with understanding undertones.
What is an Undertone?
SOURCE: Style at Home
Essentially it’s a tone hidden within a colour. In this case it’s the colour that is hidden inside the white paint you select. Undertones are everywhere but they’re most obvious when selecting neutral colours.
The reason they can be so difficult is because when you look at a colour in isolation you won’t see the underone. It’s only when compared to other whites that you’ll start to see the undertone appear.
Why Do Undertones Matter?
SOURCE: Dear Lillie Studio
If you’ve ever stood in a paint store staring at the long wall of whites, only to get home and find that your “pure” white is actually looking like a cool blue-white you’ll understand why they matter. You want your white and the undertones to work with the colours and undertones that are already present in your space.
Everything in your home has undertones. From the fabric on your sofa to the countertop in your kitchen, it’s all around us.
If you have an all-white kitchen and the painted cabinetry has a warm yellow white you don’t want to paint the walls in a white with green undertones. You want to try and find coordinating undertones so that there’s nothing that appears off.
What Undertones Are Present in White?
Here are the common undertones along with the white paint I recommend for each.
This one works best in modern spaces that include black and gray. The cool tones of the blue white work in harmony with the cooler tones.
MY RECOMMENDATION – Benjamin Moore Chantilly Lace OC-65
You might wonder why anyone would want either of these undertones in their white paint. If you have a room with a lot of earthy tones, this is the best white choice for you.
MY RECOMMENDATION – Benjamin Moore Atrium White OC-145
This is another one that can feel warm because it’s like adding a hint of nature to your walls.
MY RECOMMENDATION – Benjamin Moore White Dove OC-17
This is the brightest of the whites because it adds that warm yellow-gold glow to your room.
MY RECOMMENDATION – Benjamin Moore Simply White OC-117
How to Find the Undertone of Any White Paint
SOURCE: Pamela Lynn Interiors
The simplest way to find the undertone is to compare white paint samples. This is bad news if you were hoping to walk into a paint store and ask for “just a white” or “pure white”. There really isn’t such a thing and as soon as you lay out a few samples you’ll see what I mean.
Start by picking up as many white paint samples as you can get your hands on. Lay them out side by side and immediately you’ll start to see the undertones. In fact, sometimes what appears to be white suddenly looks yellow or pale green. Now pull it aside and you’ll see it return to a seemingly pure white. This is the point where a lot of my clients pick up the phone and schedule a colour consultation. It’s overwhelming to say the least.
Now start to compare the samples individually to the fixed materials in your space. This includes flooring, countertops, tiles, etc. You’ll start to see how the undertone works together with the colour of these elements.
A good example of this is when considering a creamy white with a yellow undertone it may look way too yellow against your Carerra marble countertop. You’ll be able to instantly see that they don’t work together. If you replace that white with one that has a blue undertone you’ll see exactly why undertones matter. A blue undertone will work with the coolness of the marble and help to create cohesion in your space.
How Light Affects White Paint
SOURCE: JDP Interiors
The biggest mistake you can make with white paint is using it in rooms that have little or no natural light. You probably think white will help to lighten the space and make it look brighter but actually, the opposite is true. Think of white paint as a mirror, reflecting all of its surroundings.
When white is used in a dark room you’ll find that it creates shadows, particularly in corners. The overall effect is that your room looks dull and darker than it will with the right colour.
If you have lots of large windows that let the natural light in, white will shine. But your natural light can also cause changes in your white paint so it’s important to understand how light affects colour.
This is the strongest and most intense light and it can be overwhelmingly bright during daytime hours. White can actually look washed out with a southern exposure. What looks great at 10am can look less wonderful at 2pm. Go for whites that have a blue undertone to counter all that warm glowy light.
MY RECOMMENDATION – Benjamin Moore Decorators White CC-20
This type of light is more consistent throughout the day. It’s less harsh than a southern exposure and it can give the room a really beautiful muted light throughout the entire day. It can also be the coolest exposure and it’s important to be careful when selecting the perfect white paint. The biggest factor in a northern exposure is that it can sometimes make your white paint look like gray paint. Instead, pick a warm white that has a yellow or peach/pink undertone.
MY RECOMMENDATION – Sherwin Williams Pure White SW-7005
You’ll experience a lot of intense natural light in the early part of the day with it fading out as the day progresses. The eastern light also tends to be more cool so you want to counterbalance that with a softer, warmer white paint.
MY RECOMMENDATION – Benjamin Moore Simply White OC-117
Here you’ll experience the opposite and the morning may be darker with the natural light becoming stronger as the hours tick by. This makes picking the perfect white paint more than a little bit challenging. How can you pick the right white when the light is constantly changing? The biggest factor is when you’ll use the room the most. If you use it primarily in the cool light of the morning you’ll want a warmer toned white. If you work away from home all day and come home in the afternoon you can go for a cooler tone to help subdue the warm light that comes in later.
MY RECOMMENDATION – Sherwin Williams White Duck SW-7010
I hope this helps you feel a bit more confident going to pick white paint for your home. Let me know if you have any questions about picking the right white.
If you know your design style but you struggle with which paint to use, take a look at my Made-For-You paint palettes. They take the guesswork out and give you the confidence to get started.